White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

“The Hammer of God” and the Lutheran Imagination

Published Friday, February 5, 2021 By John Ehrett

Early last year, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down cities and countries across the globe, I read Joseph Bottum’s book The Decline of the Novel, which contrasts the “chanson fiction” of the medieval Catholic imagination—which stressed the integrity of social roles, the accomplishment of duties, and the performance of civic scripts—with the “roman fiction” of later Protestantism, which emphasized the personal journey of the individual narrator. According to Bottum, the slow eclipse of Protestantism in the West has correlated with increasing disinterest in the novel as a subject of serious cultural significance.

Bottum’s insights, in turn, led me to contemplate a question I’d never really considered before. Gallons of ink have been spilled about the purported Calvinism of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick or Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, but where might one go to find a novel that could be recognizably characterized as Lutheran? After all, the Lutheran heartlands of Germany and Scandinavia have become increasingly secularized over time, and American Lutheranism has had far less influence on the cultural zeitgeist than the broadly Reformed tradition.

Such a book, however, does indeed exist. At the recommendation of my former literature professor, Gene Veith, I picked up the 1941 novel The Hammer of God, by Swedish Lutheran bishop, Bo Giertz. There is something about the piercing power of Giertz’s novel that has lingered in my mind.

The Hammer of God is divided into three parts, chronicling the lives and doings of three different pastors of the same Swedish parish in 1810, 1870, and 1941. In the first segment, Pastor Savonius, fresh from studies and possessing an understanding of faith principally reducible to liberal moralism, is confronted with the stark reality of death and the guilt of sin. In the second, Pastor Fridfeldt finds himself tempted in the direction of an expressionistic revivalism, and must once again learn to preach the simplicity of Jesus crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins. In the third and final section—presenting an interesting inversion of the challenge depicted in the second—Pastor Torvik must contend with parishioners who would jettison all moral guidelines in the name of an expansive Christian liberty of conscience.

Admittedly, to an outsider this may not sound like the most interesting of books, particularly since Giertz steadfastly refuses to water down the weightiness of its theological ideas for a lay readership. Unlike many writers who try to touch on theological themes in their work, Giertz is not content with merely vague gestures in the direction of the sublime or the transcendent; The Hammer of God specifically foregrounds questions concerning the sacraments, the meaning of preaching, and the Law-Gospel relationship.

And yet The Hammer of God, as decades of readers have found out, is never dull. Quite the contrary: what makes the book so engrossing is its unapologetic Lutheran-ness, its full-bore commitment to a particular theological tradition—a commitment akin to the thoroughgoing Catholic sensibility pervading Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World and The Dawn of All, or the explicit charismaticism of Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness and The Visitation.

It is difficult to distill the essence of the “Lutheran imagination” or the “Lutheran mind” into a single phrase, but to my thinking, what best characterizes this perspective is a fundamental understanding of life as a perennial return to baptism. As Luther put it in the Large Catechism, “a truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, once begun and ever to be continued. For this must be practiced without ceasing, that we ever keep purging away whatever is of the old Adam, and that that which belongs to the new man come forth.” In this image is captured both the sense of our need for that return, a need rooted in the acknowledgement of our sinfulness (the Law) coupled with the efficacy of a life-giving and once-for-all sacramental act through which God works (the Gospel). So too, such an image draws the mind to the promise that baptism brings—a promise that, crucially, is always grounded outside the self—and to the essentially cyclic rhythms of life (a motif exemplified by the Lutheran tradition’s emphasis on daily prayers and on the retention of the church year).

I have found over the years, after exploring a number of other Christian traditions, that there is a deep interior tranquility that follows from this perspective. And it is that tranquility which Giertz’s pastors seek and which, in the hour of crisis, gives them the strength to continue. That isn’t to say that this is without its risks—if, say, chief temptations of the “Catholic mind” are despair or scrupulosity, major temptations of the Lutheran mind are quiescence or antinomianism—but Giertz depicts a faith that is far more livable, far more consonant with the created nature and longings of human beings, than a tradition that insists on totalizing asceticism or apocalyptic millenarianism.

From an academic standpoint, The Hammer of God occupies a genuinely distinctive place in the literary canon—for one thing, it would seem that Giertz’s book straddles the traditions of chanson and roman fiction that Bottum explores. Like roman, or “Protestant,” fiction, its three sub-stories certainly place great emphasis on the interior journeys of the individual Christians they depict. But like chanson, or “Catholic,” fiction, these stories center on the manner in which their protagonists, in their inmost being, seek to conform to a moral order that transcends them entirely—and, more directly, how they ought to inhabit their distinctive social roles as pastors. The road to true inner fulfillment, in short, is not open-ended.

From a theological standpoint, Giertz’s book—whether or not one is Lutheran—offers a uniquely hopeful alternative to the grimness of much contemporary fiction. There is a powerful timelessness to The Hammer of God that allows the book to largely transcend its rural setting, and that reminds the reader that no matter how dire the crisis of the moment may seem, no spiritual struggle is ever really new. In the midst of a world that seems to be spiraling further and further into chaos, that is a truth worth taking to heart.

John Ehrett is executive editor of Conciliar Post, an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, and a Patheos columnist writing at Between Two Kingdoms. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

  • John Ehrett